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Ang Lee: a Pinch of Tao, a Dash of Zen
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Hui Zi famously asked the ancient philosopher Zhuang Zi: "You are not a fish. How can you feel the joy of a fish?"


Hui Zi might as well have paraphrased the Taoist question to Hollywood director Ang Lee: "You are not a cowboy, you are not gay, and you are not really an American. How can you feel the love and agony of gay cowboys during the 1960s in the US?"


On that note, where did Lee get his piercing insight into the minds of unmarried Victorian women in England during Jane Austen's time?




Lee responded, "I did a women's movie, and I'm not a woman. I did a gay movie, and I'm not gay. I learned as I went along." Brokeback Mountain, the hottest "gay movie" in history, is the Oscar frontrunner that, barring a last-minute upset, will win the Best Picture and Best Director Awards Sunday night in Los Angeles, California.   


Brokeback, like Lee's "Sense and Sensibility," has none of the conventional Chinese elements in its story line. Yet the way the story is told is tinged with Chinese aesthetics. It unfolds like a Taichi routine - unhurried and elegant.  


Even on the deeper thematic level, the sadness of longing and loss, the difficulty of articulating pent-up desires run parallel with traditional Chinese stories such as Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, of which the 1963 film version is credited as the single biggest influence on Lee's artistic upbringing.   


Lee grew up in a typical Chinese family, where an overbearing father was both a source of inspiration and a subject of awe. "I didn't have too much communication with my dad," he once revealed in an interview. The lack of outlets for natural expression gave rise to an artistic alternative, where the words uttered may not mean what they are supposed to mean, and more often, true feelings are divulged and exchanged in non-verbal ways.   


In his best works, Lee displays an expert touch in portraying communication that does not solely rely on dialogues. Brokeback opens with such a scene, where few words are said but much is implied. It happens that Ennis Del Mar, the main character, is a man of reticence. His self-repression and inner conflicts call for a subtlety and the use of symbolism that suit Lee like a glove.  


The languid pace, the open landscape, the elegiac music, the symbolic shirt - all contribute to a mood that is engulfing and a deep passion that reaches the bones because, ironically, it's presented dispassionately.   


Lee didn't do it by plunging into a culture strange to him, but by taking a step back.   


Just like Ennis who felt ostracized from the mainstream because of his sexual orientation, Lee has always felt he does not belong wherever he goes: He was born and grew up in Taiwan, but he felt an affinity with his cultural roots in the mainland. After moving to the United States, he was a stranger in a strange land. But when he came back to China, China had changed so much that he again felt like an outsider.   


This constant sense of alienation, of being an "outsider," would have crushed a less peaceful mind, but instead strengthened Lee's Zen-like inner serenity. More importantly, it has provided him a vintage point for observation. What he saw in Brokeback is not just homosexual love, but universal love, love that transcends all boundaries.   


That is why the movie has touched a cultural nerve, and that is why the director has won respect and honor all over the world.   


(Xinhua News Agency March 6, 2006)

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